July 2015

A provocative look at the world of artificial intelligence

By Louisa Hall
Review by
Louisa Hall’s fascinating cautionary tale is about the role artificial intelligence can and should play in our society.
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If only Alan Turing had received this much respect while he was alive. One of the pioneers in the field of artificial intelligence, Turing helped the Allies crack intercepted code messages from Nazi Germany during World War II, but he died in 1954 of an apparent suicide after his conviction for what Britain then called “homosexual offenses.” He was the subject of the 2014 film The Imitation Game and is one of five characters whose “voices” provide the narrative drive in Speak, Louisa Hall’s fascinating cautionary tale of the role artificial intelligence can and should play in our society.

In 2040, Stephen R. Chinn, onetime computer science wunderkind, is in a Texas correctional institution. The inventor of babybots—lifelike dolls—Chinn was imprisoned after the girls who “parented” his creations began to suffer debilitating illnesses. The artificial intelligence program used for the babybots is MARY3, whose memory contains only information gleaned from the book’s other narrators. These include a 17th-century Englishwoman forced into marriage before sailing with her family to America; a Jewish refugee and ponytailed Harvard professor; a paralyzed former babybot owner who confides in MARY3; and Turing, whom we see in letters he wrote to the mother of Christopher Morcom, the schoolmate he had a crush on in the late 1920s.

Speak poses a provocative question: What if artificial intelligence could be used to help people communicate across eras? The result is a book that achieves a tough combination: It’s frightening and highly scientific, yet also poignant. In the memoir he composes from prison, Chinn writes that a computer programmer is the creator of a universe in which he dictates all laws. Speak asks whether a macrocosm devoid of feeling is one worth creating.


This article was originally published in the July 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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By Louisa Hall
ISBN 9780062391193

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